Britain vs America

The title is misleading. I’m not going to go into a patriotic rant about how much better Britain is compared to America. In fact, what I’ve learned is that living in either country has its merits and its downfalls. But ultimately, having the experience of living in both countries is a blessing, and it has been a fascinating journey so far.

1)     English got a lot more complicated

I’m not talking about spelling. I was well aware that Americans like to omit u’s and replace s’s with z’s. I admit I’m still being stubborn about adopting Americanised spelling, however it hasn’t exactly created any pressing problems. I can rely on autocorrect to resolve those differences. But no, I’m talking about words with actually mean totally different things in America. Here’s a snippet of a completely innocent conversation I had during my first month here.

British Kate: Hey American Stranger, do you have a rubber?
American Stranger: Ermnosorrybye. *runs away*
British Kate: Tsh. I just saw him using one. Americans are so rude.

One week later, after recounting this story to an American friend, I realised that I had made a very grave faux pas. That poor fellow either thought I was intensely concerned about practising safe sex, and/or thought that I was a desperate sexual predator. Regardless, there’s probably a poster going around campus warning unsuspecting undergrad boys to avoid “that mixed-race Game of Thrones chick.” Oh, to clarify for my American audience, a “rubber” in British English is what you would call an “eraser.”

ImageSee, completely innocent.

Of the misunderstandings I’ve encountered, here are a few of my personal favourites:

“jumper” vs “sweater”

No, I’m not in need of a person looking to throw themselves off a building. I’m just cold.

“chips” vs “fries”

Did I seriously just order a plate of crisps with grated cheese?

“pants”

When an American says to me, “Oh hey, I like your pants, where did you get them from?” I automatically assume one of the following logical things: (a) they’ve been standing outside of my window watching me get dressed; (b) the situation has already escalated past option (a) and they’ve broken into my flat and gone through my underwear drawer; or more realistically (c) they have x-ray super-vision and they can see through my trousers. Either way, for a couple of months, I unfairly judged most Americans to be perverts. Sorry America, but these language barrier misunderstandings work both ways.

2)     Hospitality exists

As soon as I told people I was moving to Atlanta, the phrase “southern hospitality” kept popping up in conversations. “Southerners are so welcoming and helpful.” “They’ll feed you so much food and try to fatten you up.” “They’ll make you unwittingly divulge all of your deepest darkest secrets.” I simply responded, “Fair enough, I can handle that. They sound like my Filipino aunties.”

I was wrong. I had been off the plane for an hour (58 minutes of that was spent in a so-called “queue” at immigration) and I was smothered. I stepped out of immigration and someone had already appeared with a trolley (or “luggage cart” for you Americans), another person was pulling my suitcases off the conveyor belt, and someone else was telling me to “have a great day!” What was happening? Was I in trouble? Are teabags not allowed through customs? Why is that person touching my stuff? Were these people expecting money off me now? Was I being robbed? Why is that lady telling me to have a great day? Did she know something I didn’t? Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. Within minutes, Atlanta International Airport certainly redefined my misconceived perception of “hospitality.” And I hadn’t even stepped onto legitimate American soil.

Not that I don’t appreciate it. But hospitality of this calibre simply doesn’t exist where I’m from. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been hit in the face by doors because I naively expected the guy in front to hold it open for me. Although don’t get me wrong, it’s not like Brits don’t know what hospitality is. Like that one time the bus driver actually waited when he saw me scurrying down the street in the pouring rain after his bus. I mean, it was possibly because I ran in front of the bus as he was pulling away, but at least he opened the doors for me. Eventually. This is probably a very unjust portrayal of British hospitality but my point is, in Britain, we really don’t interact with other human beings unless we know them, or we’re in desperate need of medical attention, or drunk. Again, I’m being unfair. But you get my point.

Should've thrown yourself in front of the bus, mate. Works like a charmShould’ve thrown yourself in front of the bus, mate. Works like a charm.

3)     Overly-attached Greeting Cards

This has become a serious issue for me. At home, we rotate three standard birthday card messages: “Happy Birthday!”; “Have a great birthday!”; and if we’re feeling adventurous, “Many birthday wishes!” I go to Clintons, I buy a card with a nice picture of a cat wearing a birthday hat, and I leave.

Image

“Frankly, I don’t care if it’s your goddamn birthday.”

This is not the case in America. Buying birthday cards here has become a half hour expedition. After trawling through shelves of “Mazel Tov on Your Bar Mitzvah” and “Happy National Coffee Day” cards, I eventually locate the birthday cards. But if finding them was hard, nothing compares to what I’m confronted with when I open them up. *nice picture of cat riding a scooter* – “Sending you magical birthday wishes on your very special day. May all the years and all your days be filled with joys and sunny rays.” – *vomit* After reading one hundred and twenty seven cards with similar cringe-inducing messages, I usually give up and leave. Perhaps it’s because I’m British and I’m reserved when it comes to public displays of affection, however is there really any need to be this intense? Personally, I think not.

ImageSeptember 29th guys. Put it in your diaries. I’m expecting cards.

What Have I Learnt Then?

I honestly could have written a whole essay on the differences between Britain and America, but ain’t nobody got time for that. I’ll probably return to this conversation another time because humour, etiquette, sales tax, and eating habits are also things I find bizarre and astounding over here. But more on that another time.

Returning to my previous post about culture shock, the list above has certainly contributed to my feelings of displacement and disorientation. First, I didn’t expect to encounter so many language barriers, and second, I didn’t expect the simple task of choosing a birthday card to become such a traumatic endeavour. Nevertheless, I can certainly credit southern hospitality for making my cultural transition a lot more bearable. As soon as I arrived in America I felt like everyone cared about me (although I have a sneaky suspicion that people just find my accent endearing). And most importantly, everyone I’ve met has made me feel at home. The culture shock I’m encountering at the moment was always inevitable, but I thank America for making my whole experience – so far – insightful, entertaining, and delightful.

Alien in a Foreign Land

Did you know that culture shock is a real thing? I didn’t. For me, so-called “culture shock” was an excuse that naive people gave to justify sitting alone in their room and write predictable blogs about missing home.

Hello World. I’m Kate and I’m suffering from culture shock.

I’m not joking.

It is a real thing. I read about it on Wikipedia so now I consider myself a world-class expert on the topic. Sarcasm aside, I was certainly very naive to think that moving to a new country was going to be an easy transition. Indeed I’ve never been to America before, but seriously, how different could it be? It’s only across the pond. We (almost) speak the same language. We (almost) eat the same foods. And we all love the British monarchy (minus miserable republicans who don’t appreciate true love. Long Live Will & Kate). Surely that would be enough to guarantee my flawless transition into American culture? Apparently not. Today I had to face reality: I’m an alien in a very foreign land.

Drawing upon very reliable facts extracted from Wikipedia (give me a break, they had references to legitimate research), I discovered that culture shock consists of four stages: (1) Honeymoon; (2) Negotiation; (3) Adjustment; and (4) Mastery. I recently entered the second phase.

Negotiation

After some time (usually around three months, depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety.

– Wikipedia, “Culture Shock”

Coincidently I’ve been in America for three months now. HOW PREDICTABLE. I’m a textbook Wikipedia entry.

Prior to this, everything was perfect. A “honeymoon” one might say. America was a novelty; everything was just like the movies. But it was even better because it was all REAL. The fraternities were real. Pop-Tarts were real. Diners were real. All of it. And it was amazing.

But it didn’t last. The Frat boys were obnoxious. My Pop-Tart broke in half inside the toaster. And I realised that I had to choose between a S’mores milkshake or a double stacked bacon ‘n’ cheese steakburger because there’s no way in hell I can finish both. My “American dream” fizzled out, slowly, but surely. And now I’m here – facing reality – in a country where people keep asking me (a) if my accent is real, (b) if I was in Game of Thrones and, (c) if I was invited to Prince George’s christening. It’s terrifying.

So where do I go from here?

I’m still figuring that out. All I know is that this “negotiation” phase requires me to start re-evaluating some of my unfounded and romanticised assumptions. Of course, before I embarked on this journey I should have done some quite crucial transition preparation. But “should’ve’s” are no use to anyone. Especially someone who is freaking out about the very real situation of being so far away from home, while simultaneously trying to fish a Pop-Tart out of the toaster without starting a fire.

Eventually I’ll ask myself the fundamental questions: Where am I? Why am I here? And how am I going to adjust? But for now, I am quite content/overwhelmed with the realisation I made today. That is, I identified that I was in denial. Culture shock exists. The “pond” which separates Britain and America is not a pond at all. And whoever said American culture was not that different from British culture is a liar. Oh, yes, that was me.

I’m Kate and I’m an alien in a foreign land. It took me three months, but I’ve finally admitted it. First step towards “adjustment” – done.

20131120-021121.jpg

This photo was taken pre-culture shock (I’d only been in America for a week). First of all I’m in a diner. Second of all, I was exposed to American Dining 101: Chips are not chips. Needless to say, I had a pitiful meal. Luckily I ordered a milkshake too, which satisfied my diner experience, and my appetite.